Writers cannot afford to be silent or succumb to bullies, says Nayantara Sahgal

The feisty 91-year old author Nayantara Sahgal, whose invitation to address the 92nd anniversary of the reputed Marathi Sahitya Sammelan was withdrawn at the eleventh hour, spoke to National Herald

Saurav Datta

The feisty 91-year old author Nayantara Sahgal, whose invitation to address the 92nd anniversary of the prestigious Marathi Sahitya Sammelan was withdrawn at the eleventh hour, spoke to Saurav Datta in an exclusive interview to National Herald.

Understandably excited at the release of her new novel in February, she says, “My forthcoming book will be released on the 10th of February this year, and it is a chronicle of our times. All my novels have documented the times that we live in. I hope that my readers will read my work, ponder over it, and in their own ways, rise in support of authors and writers to speak their minds and hearts fearlessly.”

She should have been in Yavatmal today, addressing the inaugural function of the Marathi lifest. But ask her if the withdrawal of the invitation surprised her, and she replies in the negative. “We live in a climate where political pressure is exerted to cancel events which the ruling party finds unpalatable. We saw the hostility towards Carnatic singer T M Krishna, to historian Ramachandra Guha and even Gopalkrishna Gandhi…I am in very good company.”

She dismisses the charge that Marathi parochialism forced organisers of the lifest to withdraw their invitation to her. Non-Marathi writers like Girish Karnad had been invited by the organisers in the past, she points out. “They invited me with a great deal of warmth, knowing fully well that I write in English. Even the MNS later apologised and welcomed me. So, I don’t think Marathi parochialism is at work here”.

Since Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and the local MLA Madan Yerawar were to preside over the inaugural function on Friday, January 11. “My (critical) views about the BJP are well known, I am not at all astounded that political factors prompted the withdrawal of the invitation,” she says.

“My opposition is to the repression of freedom and violation of the Constitution and its ideals. I had trenchantly opposed such attacks on freedom during the Emergency and I am doing so now,” she points out while emphasizing that she has nothing against any political party as such.

“Writing is an act of political activism, and so are all forms of art,” she declares.

But had she been present in Yavatmal on Friday, January 11, she would have spoken about the hate and intolerance prevailing in the country, the lynch mob, hate crimes, dissent being stifled, bullying, abuse and threats to writers and artists and secularism under attack.

Should art and literature be divorced from politics? She replies swiftly with an emphatic ‘No’. “All writers are doing a political act- whether they are writing about their grandmothers’ cooking or their beloved, because writers choose their subject and style depending upon the political climate they are living in at that particular point of time,” she adds.

“Writing is an act of political activism, and so are all forms of art,” she declares.

India is at a crossroads and writers must stand up to the regime of bullies. Which way the country moves, towards more freedom or less, she says, will depend, among other things, on “what we write and whether we refuse to be bullied into silence.”

The address she would have delivered at Yavatmal today would have been dedicated to the memory of Indians who have been murdered and in support of all those who are upholding the right to dissent and also the right of dissenters who live in fear and uncertainty but still speak their minds.

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